A recent article on parenting site Romper puts forward the notion that fairy tales promote “rape culture.” The author, Dina Leygerman, uses five popular fairy tales to illuminate this (ridiculous) assertion, pointing out that sleeping women can’t give consent, beasts aren’t particularly nice people, and wolves are total stalkers. And Leygerman isn’t alone. An article in The Guardian last year suggested that “Sleeping Beauty” is about rape, and a Japanese professor made headlines recently by tweeting that “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty” promote “sexual assault on an unconscious person.”
The problem with this theory is that fairy tales aren’t real life (shocking, I know). They’re not really even stories in the modern sense of the word. They’re allegories meant to teach a moral lesson or impart a nugget of wisdom about life. Fairy tales have their own symbolic language that remains constant from story to story. A kiss is never just a kiss, a forest is never just a forest, a dress is never just a dress, a prince isn’t even a prince. They’re symbols. Sure, in real life, a stranger kissing you while you’re sleeping would be inappropriate, running off with a man you just met would be ill-advised, and expecting animals to do your housework would be foolish, but this isn’t real life. It’s a fairy tale.
As Joan Gould explains in her book Spinning Straw Into Gold, “In plays and movies, we understand the visual code that says the good must be beautiful while the wicked are ugly.” Fairy tales have the same code. The good guys are handsome or beautiful — princes or princesses — not because beauty is good, but because good is beautiful. Of course a good person can look ugly (and a bad person can look beautiful) but, in a fairy tale — which seeks to teach a complex message in around a page and a half of text — the code conveys the meaning. If she’s a princess you know she’s good, nothing more needs to be said.
It’s the same with kisses. It isn’t that fairy tales promote the idea that guys should just go around randomly kissing sleeping women. (I defy you to find me a sane man who gleaned this message from a fairy tale, by the way.) It’s that the kiss is symbolic of a girl’s awakening into womanhood. Snow White eats the apple — the biblical symbol of knowledge — and immediately recognizes her own sexuality. “Sex is red,” Gould explains, “as in Eve’s apple, a virgin’s ‘cherry,’ Persephone’s pomegranate or the Devil’s cloak.”
The knowledge is so startling that she faints, only to be awakened by a man, the symbol of her transformation from a child to a woman who can bear children. The reason the prince in “Snow White” (or “Sleeping Beauty” for that matter) seems kind of tacked on at the end isn’t because fairy tales promote the idea that women should run off with the first guy they see. It’s because the identity of the man is unimportant. He’s not a real person. He’s a symbol of the woman’s transformation.
Everything in a fairy tale is like this. Nothing is simply the thing it says it is. A fairy tale is a series of symbols pieced together to reveal a universal truth. You can’t take them literally. But that’s what Leygerman and all the other “feminists” are doing when they tell us that fairy tales promote “rape culture.” And taking fairy tales away — or “updating” them, as Leygerman suggests — robs our children of an important resource.
Fairy tales teach children about the frightening, but necessary, stages of growing up. Girls learn that they must become women — there will be blood and pain but there will be love and motherhood too. Children learn that they must separate from their parents, go their own way. They learn about jealousy, forgiveness, anger, and redemption. A boy with a toy sword battling his bedstead to rescue a fair maiden isn’t learning about kidnapping, he’s learning about respect, honor, and virtue — a man must be worthy of his lady love.
“Feminists” do children a disservice when they seek to ban fairy tales. And they do it out of ignorance. Mothers have been telling their children fairy tales for thousands of years. And those children — and those children’s children — built our civilization on the morals and the truths they learned at their mother’s knee. Parents, choose wisdom over ignorance. Tell fairy tales.